Why Is It So Dang Difficult To Get Accurate Information About Broadband Speeds?

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Your cable company sells you a broadband plan advertising download speeds of “up to 25Mbps.” But it feels sluggish to you so you check out an online speed test site and it tells you you’re only getting a fraction of that speed. Then the FCC comes out with its Measuring Broadband America report which — if you can even make heads or tails of it — says your ISP is actually exceeding its advertised download speeds. Why don’t all of these things agree?

A new report [PDF] from the Government Accountability Office finds that while there are multiple sources for information on broadband performance, there is disagreement about exactly what information should be shared and how to present it.

FORCED TRANSPARENCY RESULTS IN INCONSISTENT DISCLOSURES

Though Verizon’s lawsuit gutted the net neutrality portion of the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet order, one portion of the order that survived was the “transparency rule,” which requires that fixed and mobile broadband providers “publicly disclose accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services.”

When drafting this rule, ISPs complained that it would be too burdensome if they were all compelled to provide this information in the exact same way. And so there is currently no standardized format for your cable or phone company to comply with the transparency requirement. As long the disclosures include information like actual speeds and that they are timely and prominently published in plain language, they are considered compliant.

The 2015 Open Internet order, which goes into effect in the coming weeks, tries to bolster the original by requiring that ISPs disclose information on actual speed, latency, and packet loss. Additionally, there should be disclosures about so-called “network management practices,” like when a broadband provider throttles or otherwise limits access to users who exceed certain limits. Beyond posting this information, the ISPs must also develop a system for notifying individual users when their use will trigger some sort of limiting response from the ISP.

While the new rules will result in more data available to consumers, there is still an issue of standardized presentation.

“Currently, ISPs’ disclosures vary with respect to length, content, and where they are placed on ISPs’ websites,” writes the GAO. “In addition, according to public interest groups we spoke with, the complexity of this information and its lack of standardization across ISPs can make it difficult for consumers to find and use the information to compare broadband products and services.”

Beyond the access to this information, there is concern about consumers being able to understand what the numbers indicate.

Most ISPs claim that, by not being forced into a standardized presentation format, they are given the flexibility of being able to better explain this information. But not all providers objected. At least one told the GAO that it believes standardized transparency reports would benefit consumers.

The FCC has looked into the idea of a standardized “label” for broadband services that would provide all the relevant information for consumers, but the Commission tells the GAO that the rapidly evolving nature of broadband complicates matters. The new Open Internet rules did establish an acceptable format for ISPs to use to disclose this info, but does not mandate that they actually use it.

ONLINE SPEED TESTS: HELPFUL, BUT INCOMPLETE

There are numerous websites that anyone can go to in order to get some sort of measure for the performance of their broadband connection. Some of these are third party sites, while others are operated by the ISP. The FCC itself uses an app to test volunteer consumers’ wireless data connections.

And while these can be valuable tools for getting a speed snapshot at any given moment, the GAO says these tests can fall short of representing the entire issue.

“[T]he information from speed tests may not provide consumers with the information they need to understand what factors are affecting their broadband performance,” reads the report. Among the factors that can impact speed tests:

• A user’s hardware: Slow data isn’t always the fault of the ISP. Faulty or outdated modems and routers can impact speed tests.

• Other users: Running a speed test while your roommates or kids are streaming movies over the same connection could provide bad information.

• Location of the speed-test server: “If a speed test server is located outside the consumer’s ISP network, then the results could be affected by congestion occurring on networks outside of the ISP’s control,” explains the report. Conversely, a server tested on the ISP’s network may not capture congestion that affecting the user’s ability to access content outside of that network.

• Disputes between ISPs and content providers: Think back to the year-plus battle between Netflix and Verizon/Comcast/Time Warner Cable/AT&T, where the ISPs refused to open up new connections at the points where their local networks connected to Netflix’s bandwidth providers. Most speed tests would have shown that users had sufficient connections to stream Netflix, and yet their actual connections to the Netflix data were insufficient.

FCC: MEASURING BROADBAND, BUT NOT WELL ENOUGH

For four years, the FCC has undertaken its Measuring Broadband America reports, which provides oodles of information — advertised vs. delivered download and upload speeds (both over a 24-hour period and during peak weeknight periods); latency; website loading time and more.

For its reports, the FCC samples broadband data from 6,000 volunteer customers of 14 of the largest ISPs, representing more than 80% of the residential broadband marketplace. That’s all well and good, but the GAO notes that the speed tests only check speeds within an ISP’s network.

This means that the FCC is only seeing whether companies are delivering the speeds they promise along that so-called “last mile” of the Internet that they control. This gives no indication of a user’s ability to reach any content outside of that network.

[NOTE: Actual users of the FCC broadband measuring system may be provided data about connections outside of their ISP’s network. However, the actual speeds publicly reported by Measuring Broadband America are currently in-network only.]

The tests are a good measure of whether an ISP is living up to its end of the bargain, but don’t paint an accurate picture of the real broadband landscape. Almost everything you read, watch, or listen to online comes passes through multiple networks before it gets to your computer or mobile device:
internetdelivery

This is why Netflix and a handful of other super-size content providers have made deals to connect their servers more directly to the end networks of big ISPs like Comcast and Verizon. It eliminates the likelihood of congestion experienced in the “backbone” portion of the trip.

Another concern about the FCC’s handling of the broadband issue is that it may be too focused on merely measuring data rather than establishing performance goals for ISPs to meet. Instead of just making sure that ISPs are delivering advertised connection speeds for in-network data, the Commission could try to establish performance goals for interconnected networks. At the very least, sampling data across networks would provide consumers a more accurate picture of what to expect in general from their broadband connection.